When I was in first year in secondary school in 1997, a girl in the year above me was pregnant. She was 14. The only people who I ever heard say anything negative about her were a group of older girls who wore their tiny feet “pro-life” pins on their uniforms with pride. They slagged her behind her back, and said she would be a bad mother. They positioned themselves as the morally superior ones who cared for the baby, but not the unmarried mother. They are the remnants of an Ireland, a quasi-clerical fascist state, that we’d like to believe is in the past, but still lingers on.
The news broke last week of a septic tank filled with the remains of 796 children and babies in Galway. The remains were accumulated from the years 1925 to 1961 and a common cause of death was malnutrition and preventable disease. The Bon Secours “Home” had housed thousands of unmarried mothers and their children down through the years. These women had violated the honour of their communities, by bringing shame on their families through “illegitimate” pregnancy and therefore had to be hidden at all costs, and punished for their transgressions. The children died as they lived, discarded like the refuse of society that the Church considered them and the mothers that gave birth to them to be. Most of the children who survived were put to work in industrial schools under the supervision of perverts and sadists.
Thousands of the healthy ones were sold abroad – mostly to the US – for “adoption.” For the ones who remained, the outlook was poor. Mortality rates of 50% or 60% were common in these homes. In the case of the ones that died, either the Church did not feel they were valuable enough to feed and care for, or they actively worked towards their death. The risk they posed to the social order by virtue of the circumstances of their conception and birth was too great to let go unchecked. These children certainly did not die for lack of money or resources on the Church’s part (they had an income from the children they sold), and the fewer children of this kind there were, the less threat there was to the church’s control over society.
If the Church had allowed them to grow up to be functioning adults in Irish society it would have ran the risk of demonstrating that the institution of marriage was not absolutely integral to the moral well-being of a person. Women were not allowed keep their babies because the shame that their existence brought upon the community would be far too great. They were imprisoned within Magdalene Laundries to atone for their sins of honour, and their babies were removed from them as part of their punishment – women who dishonoured the community were deemed to unfit to parent.
Contemporary Ireland feigned shock when stories of the Laundries and residential institutions emerged. Perhaps the shock of those who were too young to be threatened with being put in one for “acting up” was genuine, because the institutions started to close as the years went on. But people in their fifties and sixties now, will remember how the “Home Babies” sometimes came to schools, and were isolated by other (legitimate) children, and then sometimes never came back. While those school-children may not have comprehended fully the extent of what happened, their parents and teachers, and the community of adults surrounding them knew.
Ireland as a whole was complicit in the deaths of these children, and in the honour crimes against the women. They were the “illegitimate babies” born to the “fallen women” who literally disappeared from villages and towns across Ireland in to Magdalene Laundries. Everybody knew, but nobody said, “Honour must be restored. We must keep the family’s good name.”
The women themselves served a dual purpose in the Laundries. They were a warning to others what happened when you violated the rule of the Church, and they were financial assets engaged in hard labour on behalf of the Church. They were not waged workers; they did not receive payment. They could not leave of their own free will, and their families, for the most part, did not come for them; the shame on the family would be too great. Ireland had a structure it used to imprison women for being sexual beings, for being rape victims, for not being the pure idolised incubator for patriarchy, for not having enough feminine integrity, or for being simply too pretty for the local priest’s liking. Ireland has a long tradition of pathologising difference.
People did know what went on in those institutions. Their threat loomed large over the women of Ireland for decades. On rare occasions when people attempted to speak out, they were silenced, because the restoration of honour requires the complicity of the community. Fear of what other people will think of the family is embedded in Irish culture.
The concept of honour means different things in different cultures but a common thread is that it can be broken but restored through punishing those who break it. We are familiar with the hegemonic concepts of “honour killing” and “honour crimes” as a named form of violence against women in cultures other than ours. The papers tell us it is not something that people do in the West. Honour killings, and honour crimes are perpetually drawn along racialised lines and Irish and UK media happily present them within the context of a myth of moral superiority.
Honour crimes are acts of domestic violence, acts of punishment, by other individuals – sometimes family, sometimes authorities – for either real or perceived transgressions against the community code of honour. However, it is only when there is a woman wearing a hijaab or a the woman is a person of colour, or ethnicised, that “honour” is actually named as a motivation for the act of violence. It is a term that has been exoticised, but it is not the act itself or the location it occurs, but the motivation behind it that is important in defining it.
Women of colour, and Muslim women, are constructed as the “other;” we are told these women are given in marriage at a young age by controlling fathers who pass on the responsibility for controlling them to husbands. “Protection” of women is maintained through a rigid sytem of controlling their sexuality in a framework of honour and shame. When these women transgress the boundaries of acceptable femininity they are abused and shunned by their community. Punishments range from lashing to death, but include physical beatings, kidnappings and imprisonment.
Imprisoning women in the Magdalene Laundries deserves to be named as an honour crime because of a cultural obsession that believed the family’s good name rested upon a woman’s (perceived) sexual activity that either her father or husband or oldest brother was the caretaker of. Her sentence to the Laundry was to restore the family honour.
Recently a friend of mine tweeted when the verdict was returned in the murder trial of Robert Corbet. Corbet was convicted of murdering Aoife Phelan, a woman from Laois he had been seeing, who told him she was pregnant. He hit her, then strangled her, then fearing that she was not actually dead, he put a black bag over her head and fixed it with two cable ties and buried her in a barrel on the family homestead. The next day he got on a plane to New York to meet his ex-girlfriend to attempt to repair their relationship. My friend had outlined the case and on twitter referred to Robert Corbet attempting to have a “dirty weekend away” in New York.
Following this, my friend received unsolicited mail to her facebook account, from a person claiming to be the cousin of Robert Corbet’s ex-girlfriend saying: “….how dare you say a dirty weekend in new york and speak about my cousin who is his ex girlfriend like that . you don’t know what happened when he went over or why he went over you don’t know my cousin so how dare you say that it was a dirty weekend away.”
The point of mentioning this is certainly not to make anything of Corbet’s ex’s character or actions, but his intentions after he killed a woman, as well as the the mentality of the person who sent this mail. That message is a symptom of rural Ireland’s chronic obsession with shame and the keeping of a person’s “good name” at all costs; a stranger made a post on the internet about a man’s probable intentions after murdering a woman, and someone else’s immediate reaction is not to read what she said concerning the murder of a woman, but to attest to the moral purity of her cousin. There is something very wrong with that.
There was something wrong in Listowel when a parish priest gave a character reference for Danny Foley, a man convicted of sexual assault, whose victim was refused service afterwards in bars and shops. When the verdict was returned, fifty people (mostly middle-aged men) formed a queue in the courthouse to shake the hand of Danny Foley. Journalists happily took quotes from locals saying what a shame it was, as this wasn’t his character; he was a good man, from a good family. The victim did not matter. The priest said of her, “Well she has a child you know, and that doesn’t look good.” John B. Keane wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.
We have not come so far from the Magdalene Laundries. Robert Corbet initially lied to the guards about where he had buried Aoife Phelan because he “wanted to protect the family home place.” The need to keep the family name intact is embedded in Ireland so much, that there are even other women happy to be complicit with, and benefit from patriarchy. They are the girls in my school who wore their “pro-life” feet pins (one of them is now a doctor I am told). They are the women who shook Danny Foley’s hand. They are the women who condemn other women for doing things that would have landed them in a Magdalene Laundry a few decades earlier. Let nobody question their honour.
Irish culture has had a traditional focus on eradicating troublesome women and their offspring. For years unmarried pregnant women were punished and hidden away in homes. Women who need abortions travel in silence to have them in secret in England, or they have secret home abortions here. Government ministers actively engage in policies that make it more difficult to be a single mother, and to speak out against it is deemed immoral and not of value to the community. A person sending unsolicited emails to a person concerning a third party’s moral purity, and then publicly tweeting in relation to it demonstrates her own value to the community by positioning the importance of women’s role in public morality above that of the murder of an individual woman – a woman who was buried in a barrel to protect the family home.
We are told to be silent and not talk about things. Difference, and naming difference in Ireland is pathologised. Even those who are meant to be the good guys are not exempt from the cultural effect of this. Women when they are abused in activism or online are told not to retaliate. We are called “toxic and hostile” for having the audacity to name misogynist abuse where we see it. We get death threats for speaking out about abortion. But we are told to “be kind” at all costs. When people abuse victims of domestic violence online, we are told to leave their abusers alone. Women must never appear to be angry. We must be nice to those who abuse us. We must be always nice no matter the cost to us; we must not bring shame upon the community.
This is not so far away from the mentality that locked women up in homes and threw children in septic tanks to be forgotten. It absolutely depended on complicity of wider society. It could not have existed without the collaboration of the whole community; the teachers; the priests; the nuns; the people that ran the undertakers; the local councillors; the people who brought the laundry to the nuns; perhaps your grandmother who cuddled you to sleep at night.
We are told it was a different time, and things are different now.
Youth Defence still sell their pins online. Joan Burton continues her crusade to paint single mothers as lazy and worthless. National newspapers will freely print opinion pieces denigrating them. 796 dead children will get a memorial but no one will be held to account for their deaths. Those who ask for it will be told to be kind. The religious orders who put them in a septic tank will continue unquestioned. Those who put the women in Magdalene Laundries will continue to work for “fallen women”. Women will be denied control over their own bodies. They will die for the want of medical care.
It must be so. To do otherwise, would bring shame on the family. But when we look the other way, and allow the lie that we live in a modern progressive democracy to breathe, we allow our authoritarian Catholic past to continue to cast its shadow.